I recently put together this compilation entitled “Field Recordings from the Sahel.” It’s what it says on the tin. Since the inception of this blog (way back in 2009), field recording has been at the core. The term gets thrown around a lot. While much the content in our records could be considered so, they are foremost musical recordings that have been captured with a single microphone, in one take, and aim to present the music as it sounded at the occasion.
This compilation is a bit different from the label content. The recordings here are varied: ambient soundscapes of an early morning in Timbouctou, a prayer call in rural Mauritania, late night radio broadcasts of Wolof griots. A lot of what’s here has been featured on this blog over the years – the result of traveling with a sound recorder ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Moving from blog to “record label,” the Sahel Sounds project has focused primarily on music to transmit information and commercial records to finance the work (my own research and musicial careers of our partners in W. Africa). In addition to the music, I’ve tried to use the records as opportunities to provide a little more context, using them to translate Tamashek poetry,support visual artists in Bamako, or create transcultural genre experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to step outside of the “label” context to create work not bound by the particulars of the vinyl record market.
The compilation is available streaming + with free download from bandcamp. In addition to the compilation, I produced a short book “Folktales from the Sahel,” – a collection of stories, myth, and urban legends, collected on the past decade of travel.
Mdou Moctar’s new album, Sousoume Tamachek, is now available! In the past years, Tuareg rock music, particularly that of Niger, has gotten faster. There is a preference for this new sound – both in the raucous weddings of Agadez and in Berlin rock clubs. The wavering guitar solos, rapid fire drums and heavy distortion has become characteristic of the contemporary sound.
For Mdou, this was not always the case. Self taught in a religious region that eschewed the guitar, Mdou was forced to learn music in secret. And when he did begin to play, there were no weddings or festivities. His early oeuvre was developed to play at informal private sessions with his friends. In these “takits” or picnics, Mdou and his friends would pass the lazy days together sitting under a tree, drinking tea, laughing, and singing songs.
For his new record, Mdou revisits this “music for desert picnics,” taking his compositions from his youth, and bringing them to the studio (his repertoire of “takit” songs were never recorded and only exist on warbly cassette recordings compressed into low quality mp3s). From love ballads (“Nikali Talit”), religious praise (“Ilmouloud”), to life counsel (“Amidini”), the songs are intensely personal, both in content and in structure.
Constructed around the guitar, Mdou plays everything on the album in lush layered overdubs, singing both call and response vocals, playing rhythm guitar, and drumming on the calabash. Produced in collaboration with Christopher Kirkley (Sahel Sounds) and longtime associate Jesse Johnson (Boomarm Nation), the light touch pays respect to the origin of these ballads. The result is a very different side of Mdou Moctar, that of quiet introspection, lifted out of memory for one last time.
We put together this little preview video for Mdou Moctar’s upcoming album “Sousoume Tamachek.” The album was recorded in Portland, Oregon, and we brought in a range of local talent in the recording, working with Jason Powers from Type Foundry and Jesse Johnson at Boomarm Nation. But the album itself is just Mdou, playing all the instruments, backup vocals, rhythm guitar, and percussion.
The full release is August 2017, coinciding with Mdou’s first USA tour – stay tuned for tour dates coming soon.
Starting off this new year with two new releases: Waande Kadde, dreamy acoustic Pulaar music from the villages of Fouta Toro, and Top WZN, synth, drum machines, and electric tidnit from the capital city of Mauritania. While they are immediately sonically different, they bear more similarities than one may suspect. Both are from the extreme West of the Sahel, geographically miles away. Both are improvisational sessions performed and recorded without any preparation. And both involve the meeting of the traditional and the modern, and the emergent new sounds that come from this encounter.
Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte’s Waande Kadde, was recorded in the village by the same name – a tiny burg on the banks of the winding Senegal River, on the island of Morfil, in the extreme North of Senegal. Amadou Binta Konté is a fisherman, not a griot, but nevertheless plays the hoddu – a variant of the traditional lute found throughout West Africa. In Fouta Toro, the body of the hoddu is carved out of wood and goat or sheep skin is stretched over the resonator. The “strings” are made of braided nylon fishing line, and attached to the neck with small strips of leather. Tidiane Thiam, guitarist of the group Lewlewal de Podor, plays acoustic guitar modeled on the hoddu.
Guitar songs are played in a major scale (in contrast to the pentatonic scale of Northern Mali) in traditional Pulaar and Manding tunings. There is a common technique of playing with octaves and doubling. The contemporary guitar of Tidiane, while embodied in a different instrument, is very much bound to its predecessor, and nowhere is this more apparent than hearing them together. For our recordings in 2014, we traveled to Waande Kadde to sit with the two musicians in person. This is not the first time the two had played together, yet the music was improvisational. While both Amadou and Tidiane use different instruments, they play within the “folkloric” base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger.
TOP WZN is a far cry from the mellow sounds of Waande Kadde – though geographically, it is only a stones throw into Mauritania (literally the other side of the river). The album (originally released on cassette in 2009) showcases Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, playing a signature genre of instrumental music. Transliterized as “alwazan” “wezen” or “wzn”, literally translated as “rhythm,” it colloquially refers to a contemporary genre of instrumental music, defined by synthesizers, electric guitars and lutes, and electronic drum patterns. Jeich Ould Badu is from a celebrated family of griots, and learned to play music at a young age. He plays the tidnit, the traditional Hassaniya lute – modified and updated, the goat skin replaced by flattened tin, and hacked together with phaser pedals and built in pre-amps. Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla is one of the most well known keyboard musicians in Mauritania. He plays an Arabic moded synthesizer capable of the quarter tone scales adapted from the fretless strings of classical Moorish traditions.
Popular Mauritanian music is often performed publicly with large troupes of guitarists, tidnits, synthesizers, and multiple rhythm sections. But in the past decade, the influx of small recording studios and a booming cassette industry has led to artist driven productions. WZN has followed suit, and has been transformed into an established genre. The slick studio sound, warbling tidnit, and microtones of the synthesizer are an integral part of today’s musical landscape, blasting from open air music shops and taxi cabs throughout the capital.
The new music video for Ami Yerewolo’s“A San Nièfai” takes Malian Hip Hop into a science fiction future. In the video, a trio of post apocalyptic survivors wander through the Malian countryside, stumbling on the destroyed and smoking ruin of the capital. Meanwhile, they are pursued by a vehicular gang with bandits piled into the back of trucks and screaming stunting motorcycles. The video alternates between Ami rapping in an underground mine shaft and a loose narrative that ends in a showdown between two warring factions. And of course, a dance sequence.
The stylistic choice for the video isn’t wholly surprising and is clearly inspired by the Hype Williams directed 2pac video for California Love and blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (the former of course being a remake of the 1979 Mad Max, alas). Aside from being a colorful video with a plethora of special effects and tentative narrative structure, the video stands out particularly in the West African context. It is well likely that “A San Nièfai” is the first commercial science fiction production from Mali.
I spoke with Sidiki Goita, director of the video, and co-founder of Vortex Groups, a Bamako based special FX startup. Goita is an engineer by trade, but over the years he’s grown his company to a dozen members, all in their 20s. While working on 3D design, logos, and advertising, Vortex Groups supplements their work with music video production. It’s a lucrative avenue of the struggling Bamako music industry, particularly in contemporary Malian Hip Hop. As Internet enabled cellphones replace the old bluetooth networks of music trading, sites like RHHM and Bamada-City are gatekeepers of new media. Malian Hip Hop artists rely on music videos to advertise and promote their brands. Vortex’s approach varies from the other studio houses, Goita explains. “When Vortex Groups produces a video clip, we make it as though it was a feature length fiction. We write a script, assemble a technicians, make a storyboard…and after finishing all these stages we proceed to scouting the location.”
For what appears to be a large production with cast and costumes, the video for “A San Nièfai” was assembled in pure DIY aesthetic, relying on found materials and free locations. The costumes were salvaged from found materials, transforming motorcycle helmets into armor, calabash turned into shields, and large woven potato sacks for clothing. The video was shot 40 km outside of Bamako at an old quarry for laterite, the iron rich clay used for the quintessential red mud bricks seen across West Africa. Goita was given creative freedom from the artist to make something very different from the standard Bamako Hip Hop video: “The idea of the clip was to break the monotony and the uniformity of the current African videos that loop on the music TV channels, summed up with drone shots of a singer surrounded by a crowd of dancers and also scantily clad girls. The second goal was to shock viewers to the consequences of civil wars, by showing apocalyptic images of their city.”
Science fiction has always been a genre of speculation and warnings, projections that reflect on utopic and dystopic futures. While fantasy and horror have a place in oral tradition, science fiction doesn’t exist in Mali. Only now are the possibilities being explored as technology allows low budget experimentation to redesign reality through 3D animation, compositing, and green screen. So why isn’t there more science fiction? “The problem that persists is a conflict of generations,” Goita explains. “The old ones who have mastered the network of studio production are not ready to leave the beaten track. They are content with simple cinema without technical stakes – just simple stories of love and politics.”
Sidiki Goita says the ultimate goal with Vortex Groups is to produce feature films. Their music videos are calling cards, examples of what can be accomplished with a little investment. “In the West, the cinemas are exhausted, they only make remakes and films of superheroes,” Goita says. “Like our mining resources, our stories and legends are not even exploited to 5%…The younger generation does not have access to funding to produce high-quality films. Foreign partners should trust African youth to finance projects. With less than $20,000, we could would make an African version of Mad Max which could rival productions with 10 times the budget!”